Vinnie thinks studying means getting facts to stick in your brain, so he straps his math book to his head and waits 45 minutes. He thinks that's enough to get him an A. When he gets an F instead, he blames his teacher, his mother, his cat. It never occurs to him to blame his methods.
Teacher Says: Put Vinnie's learning in his hands, not on his head. Teach him to think while he's learning. Use simple questions and strategies to help him focus on what he knows, what he doesn't and how he can go about learning what he needs. Educators call it "metacognition."
"Metacognition is thinking about thinking. It teaches kids to take a minute to evaluate what they're studying and why. It teaches them to adjust their focus based on the reason for studying," says Frank Hancock, educational coordinator for Sylvan Learning Centers in the Washington area. It's at the root of study skills.
"Study skills can't be taught in isolation, they're a bore. Underneath all these isolated study skills is the `metacognition,' that is what has to take place," says Carol Springer, educational diagnostician at Wake, Kendall, Springer, Isenman & Associates in the District of Columbia. "Kids need to be responsible for their own progress in school," says Springer, noting that some of her colleagues believe this should happen by third grade.
Skillful studying begins by asking, "Why?" "Why, is the question you have to ask when you are going to think," says Hancock. "As you're studying, that question should come up 50 percent of the time. If it does, kids are really thinking about what they are studying," he says.
Springer suggests that Vinnie's teachers and parents should "talk through an organized plan for each particular assignment." This plan should include self-monitoring questions and study strategies that suit the task and complement his learning style.
The following questions can be adjusted for all age groups and for all types of assignments. It is adapted from the work William G. Huitt of Valdosta State University, Valdosta, Ga., and Wilma H. Miller of the University of Illinois in Normal, Ill.
Before beginning each assignment, have Vinnie answer the questions aloud. Or make a checklist he can complete as he moves through each new task. Repeat the process until he analyzes his thinking automatically:
Do I understand why I have to read this material? For a test? Report?
What do I already know about this subject, topic, issue?
Can I make some predictions about this material even before I read it?
Do I know all that I need to know about this?
Do I know where I can get some more information?
How much time will I need to learn this?
What are some strategies and tactics I can use to learn this?
How can I spot an error if I make one?
Should I read the first sentence of a paragraph more than once?
Did I understand what I just read?
Can I remember it well enough to retell it after I finish reading? To answer questions on a test?
How can I revise my study plan if this one is not working?
Then, together, develop study strategies compatible with his learning style. The two following ideas work best with kids who learn visually; they have to see it to learn it and remember best when they write it down.
Since lots of homework in middle school and high school involves textbook reading, teach Vinnie a strategy that focuses on note-taking and summarizing. Here is a strategy adapted from the work of Walter Pauk of Cornell University. For small groups of elementary school kids, the process can be done orally, aided by a flip chart or chalkboard.
Begin by drawing a vertical line to divide a piece of paper or a section of chalkboard into two columns. Label the first column, "questions" and the second, "answers." Have Vinnie begin reading silently. Each time he reads something he doesn't understand, have him stop and jot it in the "questions" column. He continues noting questions until he finishes reading. In the last step, he returns to the text to answer his own questions, noting the answers in the right-hand column across from the question. In this process, not only does Vinnie constantly monitor his reading, he produces notes to use later to study for tests.
Or, try visual imagery to bolster thinking and comprehension in elementary and middle school students. It's characteristic of good readers to form mental pictures as they read. These "mental movies" form a road map of the material and reinforce memory. This strategy is adapted from the work of Wilma H. Miller and Nanci Bell.
This method requires some homework on the part of parents and teachers until Vinnie gets the hang of it. It starts with identifying "key words": Using Vinnie's reading assignment, skim through the selection and pull out important words, especially ones ripe with imagery. Make a list. Discuss with Vinnie the images he visualizes when he says each word. Then have him read the selection aloud to see if his images reflect the material.
A variation is to read him the selection. As you read he places a coin or colored square on the table each time a word produces an image in his mind. Then ask him to retell the story using his coins or squares.
Teachers, and especially parents, can put Vinnie in the catbird seat of his own learning by taking an active part in his studying. "Parents need to remember what a number of studies have proven -- that the single most important predictor of academic success in a child's life is parental involvement," says clinical psychologist and author Ruth Peters. Show Vinnie that 45 minutes of self-monitored thinking is just about the best study method he can strap to his brain.
Resources: "The Complete Reading Disabilities Handbook" (Prentice Hall, $29.95), by Wilma H. Miller. Orders, 800-288-4745; "Visualizing and Verbalizing" (Academy of Reading Publications, $49.95), by Nanci Bell. Orders, 800-233-1819; Play "Thinking Games" at the University of Toronto's Learning to Learn site, http://snow.utoronto.ca/ Learn2/resources/games.html.
Contact Evelyn Vuko online at firstname.lastname@example.org or write her at Style Plus, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.